Making the most of MOOCs

I love to learn new things. I love MOOCs (Massive, Open, Online Courses). I’ve taken courses in science fiction, modern American poetry, Python programming, logic, philosophy, and songwriting. While certainly each class had its pros and cons, I have enjoyed them all. Coursera has been a fantastic boon for me personally.

Despite the wide variety in topics, I’ve noticed some similar traits in some of my fellow students in each class. The discussion forums in each course have been populated with a fair number of complaints, irrespective of course quality or content. These complaints say much more about the student than the course, and reflect beliefs that get in the way of learning. I share them with you so that you can make the most of your MOOC experience.

Complaints about structure. Some students immediately take issue with the course structure. On day one of the songwriting class, some students claimed the class was too structured. Their genius (the students) could not be constrained by the methods taught in the class. Come to MOOCs with a mind open to the possibility, maybe the likelihood, that the instructors may know something you don’t. If you aren’t convinced of that, don’t take the class.

Complaints about content. In every subject, someone has a favorite author/songwriter/philosopher/logician/module that the course does not cover. Get over it. The instructors almost certainly are aware of whatever you feel is being slighted, and preferred another topic. In six to twelve weeks, you can only cover so much. Besides, if you know someone enough to consider it a slight, you would learn nothing from their being included in the course. Again, go in assuming the instructor has some sort of idea of what they are doing.

Complaints about copyright. In some classes, you might create something you could hypothetically sell, like a song, poem, or a story. You might be tempted to rail against the license you grant Coursera when you share your efforts with your fellow students. Don’t. Instead, worry about being struck by a meteor, or something else that has actually ever happened in the history of the world. Coursera (or whatever site) is not an elaborate front to allow publishers to access your genius free of charge.

Complaints about peer review/grading. In MOOCs, you are likely going to be graded by peers. They may or may not be native speakers of English (or whatever it is you speak). They may not be experts. However, they are fellow students doing their best (as you are doing). If and when these courses actually count toward some sort of degree, worry about grading then. Until then, try to learn something.

All of these complaints come from a common seed: The idea that the student knows better than the instructor. With that type of attitude, you are unlikely to learn anything. Open your mind to the possibility that you don’t know it all. Accept that the course will not kowtow to your particular desires. If you give them a chance, you just might enjoy yourself (and learn something too).


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